The Instability of the Archive

Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: An Archive of Writing

Carrie Smith, 21 February 2017, CEIR Seminar Series

Birthday LettersIn the second paper of the 2017 Centre of Editorial and Intertextual Research Seminar Series, Dr Carrie Smith, a lecturer here at Cardiff University, used the manuscript drafts of Ted Hughes’ final full-length collection, Birthday Letters (1998), to suggest that the collection itself becomes a poetic archive. Drawing on her soon-to-be-completed monograph, Smith argued that from its opening poem, Birthday Letters presents us with accounts of documents that cement the collection in the texture of real life.

Smith began her paper by discussing how archives are organised. Focusing specifically on the British Library and Emory University Library (the latter holds the private library of Ted Hughes), Smith argued that these spaces are usually perceived to be ‘neutral’ in their layout. However, as Smith pointed out, the archive offers a ‘promiscuity of meanings’ because it exists on the border between excision and excess, the limited and the unlimited. [1] While archives attempt to reserve the past, Smith in her discussion of Birthday Letters revealed that they are inherently unstable. Human decision is involved in how a collection is organised, leading to questions of whether it should be user-friendly (as in the British Library), or if it should respect the original order of the material (as in Emory University Library)? And does either way influence our understanding of the documents? Given these variations, Smith suggested that the archive must be read as a document in itself.

Smith then detailed several ways in which Hughes can be seen constructing the archive. The Birthday Letter archive contains photocopies of handwritten drafts of several of the poems which show evidence of having been re-edited. Smith defined the archive as a ‘palimtext’ (visible layers of writing), invoking the idea of the palimpsest. As a humorous aside, Smith drew attention to the difficulty in working with manuscripts by providing examples of the deterioration in Hughes handwriting.

In the late 1990s, at the same time that Hughes was drawing together his Birthday Letters archive, Smith maintained that he was simultaneously shaping his literary legacy. Smith argued that Hughes’ process of constructing his archive informs the collection’s focus on the fallibility of memory and the potential for documents and objects to deceive. She provided evidence that when Hughes sold Sylvia Plath’s archive in 1981 he re-engaged with her material. By way of an example, Smith analysed the poem ‘The Literary Life’ which foregrounds the paper trail between Plath and Marianne Moore. In the poem, Hughes quotes from a letter he acknowledges that he does not have, generating questions about the relationship between poetry and trust in the collection. Smith cited this as a central issue in Birthday Letters. In a second metatextual example, Smith explored an unpublished poem from the collection in which Hughes interacts with the draft version of one of Plath’s poems. Smith contended that there is an almost mystical power which emerges from this engagement with the handwritten draft. Smith went on to suggest that the proliferation of reported documents, photographs, journal entries and letters mentioned in the published collection is a result of Hughes’s re-encounter with these items.

Finally, Smith turned her focus to the incorrect biographical details present throughout the collection. Smith drew particular attention to Hughes mediation on the nature of the photograph and how memory can be engineered or distorted. Using another poem in the collection, ‘Fulbright Scholars’, she argued that the substitution of an easily-checkable detail, such as a change in Plath’s headband colour, implies that Hughes is creating a poetic archive that cannot be trusted. By a way of a conclusion, Smith suggested that the ‘archive’ must be viewed from a distance and as a whole within the mind of the individual researcher who has the ability to collapse the distinctions between different archives.

— Katherine Mansfield

[1] Sarah Nuttall, ‘Literature and the Archive: The Biography of Texts’, Refiguring the Archive, ed. by Carolyn Hamilton, et al. (London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 295.

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